Sextortion cases are rising. Here’s what you need to know:
Among the many online threats today’s teens face, one is quickly rising: sextortion.
Sextortion – a word combined from the words sex and extortion – is when someone’s sexual imagery is used to extort them. Put simply, it’s when someone blackmails or threatens to expose another person’s sexual imagery to make that person do something they don’t want to do, like send more compromising photos, maintain contact, or send money. Both online strangers and former romantic partners can sextort victims in an attempt to harass, embarrass, and control them.
Thorn has conducted research and built campaigns to combat this threat since as early as 2015.
What is sextortion and the emerging blackmail threat?
Between 2019 and 2021, the number of reports to NCMEC involving the sextortion of children or teens more than doubled. Unfortunately, trends this year suggest sextortion cases are rising, and teenage boys have been the most common targets in more recent cases. In reports from early 2022, 79% of offenders were seeking money from the victim.
This crime may happen when a child has shared a nude or nearly nude photo or video with someone they met online and thought they could trust. Unfortunately, in many cases, the child has been targeted by an individual with malintent: someone who is looking to obtain sexual imagery from the child through deceit, coercion, and other nefarious methods. Often, the offenders pretend to be someone else (e.g. catfishing) by sharing images of another person who they’re attempting to impersonate, like another child, and/or they use fake accounts to communicate with the child. Once they receive the child’s sexual imagery, they then blackmail and threaten that child with the release of the imagery, unless the child does as they say.
Which factors may make some kids more vulnerable to sextortion?
Interacting with others through the internet is an important part of how kids socialize, regularly connecting with people they know only online through mutual friends, shared interests, and games. Importantly, they often don’t consider them strangers, even if that online friend is an adult.
We learned from our research that, for many kids, chatting and flirting with adults they met online was seen as normal. Seemingly innocent flirtation or friendship can quickly turn traumatic if a child is tricked or coerced into sharing intimate images and those images are used to blackmail them.
Sextortion is extremely traumatic and isolating.
Roughly 85% of young adults and teens surveyed who had their intimate images used as blackmail by a peer or online perpetrator said embarrassment was their primary reason for not going to their friends and family for help.
Kids experiencing sextortion often do not see themselves as victims and instead believe it is their fault this is happening to them. Kids experiencing this type of online abuse can feel shame, fear, hopelessness, and isolation, which perpetrators rely on to carry out their threats. Sadly, we have heard about cases rapidly escalating and resulting in self-harm and suicide.
What can you do to help kids?
If you or someone you know is being threatened online, know that this is not your fault, you are not alone, and there is hope to get to the other side. Get help here.
- Make a report to NCMEC’s Cybertipline at report.cybertip.org
- Reach out to NCMEC for support at email@example.com or 1-800-THELOST
Do not pay perpetrators or otherwise comply with their demands. While it may seem like giving in will make the problem go away, often it just emboldens the perpetrator to continue and increase their demands.
Be there unconditionally. Give non-shaming and supportive messages to kids to help them know that it is never their fault if someone abuses them, betrays them, or tricks them online. Our Thorn for Parents resource hub has age-appropriate information, conversation starters, and discussion guides for parents and trusted adults.
Tips you can share with kids
Be cautious. Not everyone is who they say they are online in real life. Keep your social profiles and personal info private, and don’t accept friend requests from people you don’t know (even if you have mutual friends).
If you or your friends are being threatened or “blackmailed” online, here’s what you can do:
- Know that this is not your fault and you are not alone.
- Take control and stop responding immediately. Get help instead of paying money or otherwise complying with the blackmailer. Cooperating or paying rarely stops their threats.
- Talk with someone you trust. Text “THORN” to 741-741 to confidentially speak with a trained counselor.
- Save everything. Block the blackmailer, but do not delete your profile or messages.
- Report sextortion to the platform. This removal guide has steps to make reports on many major platforms.
- Report sextortion to NCMEC’s Cybertipline at report.cybertip.org.
- Change all of your passwords.
- Remember that it will be ok, and there is hope to get to the other side.
Let your kids know that sextortion can make people feel isolated and scared. Encourage them to reach out to their friends and let them know they’ll always have their back. Remember, you are not alone in this.